On Saturday the girls and I were struggling. It seems the tail-end of this local cough and cold that has been making the rounds involves a fair bit of squabbling. I've been making polls of my friends that have also had this cough/cold thingy and their children too have been swinging from idyllic, sweet, sibling-play to all-out brawls. One moment my kids are snuggled in a home-made nest of fluffy blankets incubating some eggs, surrounded by stuffed animals and sparkles of good cheer and then? Mayhem. Tears, screeching, and stalemates. Three billion and forty three times per day.
To say I was at my wits-end is an understatement. At one point, after unsuccessfully trying to negotiate an argument about a piece of plastic (really everything has been a point of contention) while showering, I grabbed my towel and ran into the bedroom and shut the door. When they followed me (of course they followed me) I said: I can't take the arguing. I want two minutes to get dressed in peace. If you start to argue I'm going to ask you to leave. They argued after maybe fifteen seconds of peace, and I ushered them out the door where they cried. My blood pressure spiked even higher and that peace I sought was never found.
Later the sun came out. The girls rode their bikes around and around in the driveway and I raked all the leaves off the newly sprouting irises. There was a good chunk of time with no arguments. We were all breathing the spring air and loving life. When Kris rode up on her bike we gathered around her for a chat. I asked her if her kids had been doing the sibling squabble thing and she said absolutely. She said her husband had been on the phone several times with the Easter bunny discussing whether or not he should come by this year. My girls eyes grew several times their normal size. They wanted details. Kris said her kids had not been wanting to brush their teeth and not treating each other well and Tim was discussing with the Easter bunny if an Easter celebration was going to work out this year.
My girls looked to me, anxious beyond belief, and asked if our Easter was going to be canceled. I said things were still looking pretty good for them. Then I remembered how my own mother had canceled Easter one year. I laugh about it now, remembering my mom taking a stand because Emily and I were being complete teenage assholes and she didn't feel like putting together a sweet gift for us. It makes sense to me now, as an adult. As a kid, even a teenage one, I was pretty bummed. The girls listened to this tale with more anxious faces.
Then Kris pedaled away and we rode bikes and raked some more.
When we went back inside the squabbling started before I even removed my coat. Warmed by the fun of outside and forgetting myself for a moment I joked that maybe I should call the Easter bunny. The girls panicked and I laughed and made it clear I was joking. But in an instant Echo, the four-year old who has never been punished or threatened, declared: If you cancel Easter, we are going to cancel MOTHER"S DAY!
A lot of thoughts and feelings passed through me in that moment. I wanted to punish her for saying that. I felt sad. I felt shamed. I thought again about how sarcasm and adult jokes really aren't funny to children. I thought this kid is too smart for her own good. And I also thought: Oh, right, punishment FAILS.
This is how bullying is started. Or war. The parent uses the model of "might is right" and the children follow. It took Echo all of five seconds to figure out the pattern: Dislike the action of another? Threaten them with your power. Now of course, as the leader in the family I do have more power than the children. I make a million decisions each day that they have to follow: what's for breakfast, when it's time to walk the dog, what's for lunch, when it's okay to have gum, when we play with friends, when it's time to brush teeth, how many stories we read, when it's time to turn out the light. All of this power makes it even more important that I wield it with a conscience, that I use it responsibly not as a tool to manipulate my children. In this case it's important that I not use my power to manipulate them into getting along, into not expressing their feelings as they arise, into falsely "getting along".
Echo's threat was like a dagger to my heart. Cancel Mother's Day? Ouch.
I backpedaled. I assured them that no one was canceling anything. I tried to clarify that I was joking. I said we would just keep talking about the things that were bothering us, like we always do. No need to worry. And we keep coming back to it. I have reassured them several times that Kris's children definitely did enjoy an Easter celebration. I tried to explain that their Papa was just bummed, like me, that things were rough at their house. He saw kids that didn't want to brush teeth and the Easter bunny was going to bring a bunch of candy and those two things weren't making sense to him.
But unfortunately my threat lingers in the air and won't dissipate. I can tell there is a bit of concern that if they don't do things right, something wonderful like a holiday, will be canceled. This may sound like a good thing parenting wise, in fact this concept is the foundation of %90 of the parenting in our culture, but it has too many dangers. I don't want my kids stifling feelings so that the Easter bunny will come. I don't want them behaving a certain way because they fear their mother will do to them some horrific thing. I don't want them using external parameters (mom's threats) to guide their behavior.
I want them to have all of the feelings they may have and let them go so swiftly and fervently that their bodies and minds are free of them. I want them to feel safe arguing with their siblings. I want them to treat people well, not because some punishing authority is watching, but because they have empathy. I want them to treat others the same whether in the presence of an adult or not. I want them to develop a personal guidance system that is their own, not constructed from fear.
So the Easter Bunny came. The girls donned spring dresses from their Great Grandma B and the flower headbands we drag out each year. Nathan and I set up a scavenger hunt, complete with cryptic clues, and Nathan had to keep grabbing my arm to steady his giggly-tickled-feelings. The girls hunted eggs with their initials on them (to prevent the panicked competition that sets in and to inspire cooperation as each girl helps the other find her eggs). There was chocolate consumption before breakfast. A true Easter.
Xi asked again if I ever really was going to call the Easter Bunny and I said no, I don't even know how I would get his number. And she, the savvy eight-year old said: Google it?